Two Incunable Books, Stolen in Switzerland Years Ago and Sold in America, Returned

- by Michael Stillman

Lessing Rosenwald's copy of Ship of Fools.

Two incunable books, stolen from the Capuchin Library in Freiburg, Switzerland, have been found and returned to the Freiburg Canton Library which now holds the collection. The Capuchins turned their collection over to this library to provide better security. The books were stolen at different times and ended up in different collections. Both were in America. Part of what made the search extra difficult is the library wasn't even aware that books had been stolen until years later. It took a lot of searching to find and identify the missing books, but with the help of the Swiss Ambassador to America, they are now back home again.


The first book is Das Narrenschiff, in English, The Ship of Fools. This is a famous satire by Sebastian Brandt, a first edition published in 1494. It is extremely rare, only 14 copies still extant. The Swiss library valued it at a little over $500,000. Some of the illustrations are believed to have been prepared by Albrecht Durer. It is believed to have been stolen during the Second World War. The book first reappeared in 1945 with a New York bookseller. It was sold to Lessing J. Rosenwald, one the greatest American collectors of the twentieth century and a man with an impeccable reputation. He would not have known the actual source. Rosenwald gave his collection to the Library of Congress over several decades from the 1940s to 1980. We believe this was an early gift. That is where it has been until its history was recently discovered.


The circumstances of the second theft are better understood. Its title is De Memoria Augenda, On Increasing Memory. It is a book about the brain and improving memory. The author was Matthiolus Perusinus, the book published circa 1490. In this case, the thief approached the library posing as a librarian from the Vatican in 1975. The monks fell for the ruse and gave him free reign of the books. He stole 21 books and manuscripts and then disappeared. The theft wasn't noticed until 25 years later. This book was purchased by Philip Mills Arnold, another innocent collector. He later donated it to Washington University in St. Louis where it was located.


Both books have now been returned to Freiburg, but there are still many others missing that were stolen. Only six of the 21 taken in 1975 have been returned. They will keep looking.